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In Butler County, one Concordia resident's life still revolves around the piano

| Saturday, Dec. 19, 2015, 5:04 p.m.
Concordia resident Martha Champion looks on as her husband pianist Bill Champion, 89, plays Christmas favorites at Concordia's 3rd annual Live Nativity event.
Joyce Hanz
Concordia resident Martha Champion looks on as her husband pianist Bill Champion, 89, plays Christmas favorites at Concordia's 3rd annual Live Nativity event.
Bill Champion plays from memory and never uses sheet music.
joyce hanz | for trib total media
Bill Champion plays from memory and never uses sheet music.

At the tender age of 3, Bill Champion was tickling the ivories in his hometown of Maple Heights, Ohio. His parents recognized and encouraged his talent.

Just tall enough to reach the keys, Champion studied the piano throughout his childhood and later would master five other instruments: vibraphone, sousaphone, trombone, tuba and organ.

But the piano always has held his musical heart.

“I grew up playing the piano, and its my favorite instrument,” Champion says. “I would be devastated if I woke up tomorrow and could no longer play it.”

Not only has his talent supported him over the years, but it has allowed him many amazing opportunities — from making history in Washington, D.C., to being in a Hollywood movie.

Champion and his wife, Martha, moved to Concordia Lutheran Ministries in Jefferson Township, a senior community home, two years ago from Buffalo, after Champion retired from a teaching career that spanned four decades.

With a doctorate from the University of Michigan, Champion served as music professor and band director at Buffalo State College.

After retiring, the couple wanted to relocate to a more geographically central locale to their two grown sons and two grandchildren.

“Even though Bill retired, he never really retired,” Martha says.

A stint playing for the Navy band at age 17 led to a memorable performance — marching in President Franklin D. Roosevelt's funeral procession in Washington in 1945. Playing the sousaphone, he was hand-selected to represent the Navy with other musicians in the procession. He says that day “was a great honor.”

Later, Champion formed the Buffalo Swing Band, a nod to his favorite musical genre.

“I love the music of the '40s,” he says.

The Buffalo Swing Band was chosen to perform in the 1984 film “The Natural,” starring Robert Redford. The band also appears on the soundtrack.

“We were flown out to Hollywood and filmed on the RMS Queen Mary,” Champion recalls. “We filmed for a few days and were paid very well.”

When Champion plays the piano, he does it from memory, without sheet music.

“It's a gift from God,” he says.

These days, he volunteers his musical prowess by playing weekly at Concordia's chapel services and for residents of Concordia's Haven III building, where the couple resides.

“We are so blessed to have Mr. Champion here as a resident,” says Shirley Freyer, director of public relations for Concordia. “He volunteers all of the time, and it is amazing how he plays from memory.”

People often marvel at Champion's ability to play hundred and hundreds of songs from memory.

“I just remember the chords of each song, and it's easy from there,” he says.

“He sounds good,” Concordia resident Carol Porter says. “I hear him playing in the lounge.”

Boasting strong hands that are arthritis-free, Champion looks forward to many more music-filled days at Concordia and sometimes at the couple's second home on Lake Superior.

Joyce Hanz is a contributing writer for Trib Total Media.

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